N.C. Historical Commission member on ‘Silent Sam’: Deal with injustice in face of unjust laws

N.C. Historical Commission member on ‘Silent Sam’: Deal with injustice in face of unjust laws

“Silent Sam” – erected in 1913 – was toppled Monday on the Chapel Hill campus.

On Wednesday the North Carolina Historical Commission’s Confederate Monument Study Committee will meet.

It will give its recommendation on whether to remove three Confederate monuments in downtown Raleigh. The full commission will then vote on the issue.

The discussion took on new weight and urgency after protesters toppled the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument at UNC-Chapel Hill Monday night (a video of last night’s events is included in this link).

Behind the scenes, commission members are talking about whether the bringing down of that statue — an act inspired by frustration over how little progress has been made on the issue — will impact the board’s first-ever vote on removing Confederate statues.

Valerie Johnson is the Mott Distinguished Professor of Women’s Studies and Director of Africana Women’s Studies at Greensboro’s Bennett College and chair of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission. She is also one of only two Black members of the 17-member North Carolina Historical Commission, which must approve any proposed removal, relocation, or alteration of historical monuments on state property.

Dr. Valerie Ann Johnson of the N.C. Historical Commission.

Speaking with Policy Watch Tuesday, Johnson said she has had mixed feelings about the toppling of the statue she opposed and has argued should be removed.

“I do agree with Gov. Roy Cooper in the sense that these public defacings of property — it’s unfortunate,” Johnson said. “And I don’t necessarily condone them. But I understand.”

“I’ve been reading Dr. Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait to try to understand my feelings,” Johnson said. ” I feel the tension — the tension of something that is unjust and people who want to make justice work. That is unsettling, I would say.”

“I am in a position that is not the easiest to be in, because I have all of these different intersections,” Johnson said. “And that’s what happens. I show up as this black woman and professor — I have a different kind of stake in what happens to these statues. And I have a responsibility as a historical commissioner.”

Ultimately, Johnson said, she believes that the toppling can be both illegal by definition but also the right thing.

“I agree with Dr. King that if a law is unjust, there is a moral higher law that says you deal with that injustice,” Johnson said. “You are not beholden to unjust laws. That’s the tradition I come out of. Something can be technically legal and morally unjust.”

A law was passed to protect such statues in North Carolina in 2015, even as other states and municipalities across the country were willingly removing them. This frustrated the ability of the people to resolve the conflict through legal and civil channels added further frustration, Johnson said.

The Historical Commission has never received a petition from the statue’s custodians, Johnson said — the leaders of the university. The UNC Board of Governors has refused to discuss such a petition — even in the face of the university spending $390,000 to protect the statue last year.

“I’m not surprised by what happened, because nothing has happened on this issue,” Johnson said. “And I knew that the feelings and attitudes toward Silent Sam many people held at the campus had to be addressed. Students — as you can see from yesterday — lost patience.”

Between students coming back to the campus for the fall semester, the looming hearing for Maya Little, a student charged with defacing the statue earlier this year, and the lack of any progress on an issue people have been trying to resolve for 50 years, Johnson said Monday’s toppling of the statue became almost inevitable.

While the historical commission will not be taking up the Silent Sam question Wednesday, the statues they will be discussing share a history and a cultural connotation with what was, until this week, the only Confederate monument on a UNC campus.

At issue Wednesday are three monuments on the State Capitol grounds, where they stand among about a dozen other statues. They are:

* The 75-foot Capitol Confederate Monument, erected in 1895, which commemorates North Carolina’s “Confederate dead.”

* The Henry Lawson Wyatt Monument, erected in 1912, which commemorates the first Confederate soldier killed in the Civil War combat at the Battle of Bethel on June 10, 1861.

* The Monument to North Carolina Women of the Confederacy, erected in 1914.

Last September, the full historical commission put off a decision on removing three Confederate monuments from the State Capitol grounds. Instead, the commission formed a task force to study the politically fraught issue.

The task force has been working on the issue ever since, Johnson said — and as of Tuesday afternoon was still putting together the language of its final recommendation.

While Silent Sam isn’t the topic of discussion, Johnson said it’s likely to be heavily on commissioners’ minds.

“I can’t speak for anyone else,” Johnson said. “But I know that I’m paying attention to how people are responding. I could not safely say those statues will be all right. I’m looking at what happened in Salisbury [where a Confederate statue was vandalized]. All of these things are out of control of any given person. So reasonably, you look at what actually can be done. That’s kind of my stance. It has my attention.”

And the decision of the Historical Commission has the attention of decision makers all over the state — from the North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh to Winston-Salem, where, last week, a proposal to move a Confederate statue was put on hold pending the commission’s decision Wednesday.

The commission’s meetings will be held in the first-floor auditorium of the Archives and History/State Library Building, 109 E. Jones St., Raleigh. The meetings are open to the public. Doors will open at 9 a.m. The committee will meet at 10 a.m. with the full commission to meet at 10:30 a.m.

Those interested can also watch a live stream of the meeting here.